Recent meetings between Russia and Tunisia signify the eagerness of Moscow to build strong ties with Sunni countries of the Arab world, both in terms of counter-terrorism and economic trade.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes his Tunisian counterpart Khemaies Jhinaoui during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, on March 14, 2016. Photo: AP

The decision to withdraw the main part of the Russian air forces from Syria was taken as a positive sign in most Arab states, including Tunisia, which is a member of the coalition of Arab Sunni states headed by Saudi Arabia. It is likely that the Kremlin’s decision to reduce its presence in Syria will help to reduce the tensions that recently emerged in Moscow’s relations with the majority of Sunni countries.

As proof that Russian diplomacy is continuing to search for partners among Sunni states, Moscow recently hosted several meetings of high-level representatives from Tunisia. From Mar. 30 to Apr. 1, Moscow hosted a Russian-Tunisian intergovernmental commission on cooperation in trade, economy, science and technology. Two weeks before that, Moscow welcomed Khemaies Jhinaoui, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia.

The negotiations not only showed that both countries have similar positions on the threat of global terrorism and the general situation in the Middle East and North Africa, but also made evident a number of areas of economic cooperation that require significant attention by both sides.

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The exceptional case of Tunisia

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring started. It is in this country where the first dictatorship – of then President Ben Ali – fell in January 2011. As opposed to other Arab states that five years ago went through a wave of “Arab revolutions,” this North African country managed to carry out democratic reforms and overcome the threat of a possible military escalation.

As a result, Tunisia saw the establishment of a real multi-party system, democratization of the judicial system and law enforcement bodies, as well as the introduction of additional rights and freedoms for trade unions and social organizations. At the same time, the President of the country Béji Caïd Essebsi, together with today’s multi-party government (that also includes conservative Muslims) headed by the centrist party Nidaa Tounes, remain committed in their fight against jihadists and Islamic terrorists that challenge the stability of the Tunisian state.

However, the revolutionary wave did not only bring positive change to society in Tunisia. In fact, quite the opposite is true: the socio-economic results of the last five years are quite negative. Along the way, Tunisia lost 15 points in the Human Development Index, moving from 81st position in 2010 to 96th in 2015. The unemployment level is increasing, as is the number of people in need of state support. These factors are influencing the government to be even more active in countering any signs of extremism.

Russia and Tunisia, united in the fight against international terrorism

Recent negotiations in Moscow on Mar. 14 between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his colleague from Tunisia Khemaies Jhinaoui showed that Moscow and Tunisia have similar views regarding the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.

In particular, Lavrov and Jhinaoui expressed mutual support of the ceasefire and the resumption of the negotiation process in Syria, called for an end to the war in Yemen, and supported future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia and Tunisia also supported the role of United Nations as a coordinator in the process of Libya’s transition to national stability.

As a result of the meetings in mid-March, the ministers came up with a joint statement on the fight against international terrorism, pointing out that terrorist groups and, most importantly, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) pose a direct threat to global security and the sovereignty of states. They also noted that effective counter-terrorism measures are only possible based on the principles of international law and resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council and UN General Assembly.  

The text of the joint statement also includes a passage that is completely in line with the Kremlin’s assessment of the situation in the Middle East: “We believe that interference in the internal affairs of states and disregard for the fundamental principles of international law can only aggravate the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa region.”

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Economic cooperation between Russia and Tunisia

The 6th session of the Russia-Tunisia intergovernmental commission was focused on boosting bilateral cooperation in the humanitarian and economic spheres. For a few months now, Tunisia has been raising the question of increasing the flow of Russian tourists to the country, which had largely stopped due to terror attacks at Tunisian resorts. Russia has said that the flow of tourists will grow once again and the problem will go away as soon as the security situation in the tourist areas will be improved. This is another indicator demonstrating the negative impact that terrorism has on international relations.

Another important point of discussion at the session of intergovernmental commission was the question of trade turnover, which decreased 19 percent from 2014 to 2015. Foreign Minister Lavrov believes that this is just a temporary development.

It is worth noting that Russian-Tunisian trade relations are quite diversified. In 2015 Russian exports to Tunisia consisted of metals (almost half of all Russian exports to Tunisia), minerals, fats and oils of animal or plant origin. In turn, Tunisia exports shoes, clothes and electric equipment to Russia. Potentially Tunisia could also export food products to Russia (including dates, apples and pears) while Russia could supply its partner with animal products.

Taken together, this potential increase in trade could become the basis for even stronger relations between Russia and Tunisia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.